Saturday, 23 September 2017

Recognising where the power lies

Some political commentators have interpreted the Prime Minister’s Florence speech as an attempt to go over the head of Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, and appeal directly to the governments of the other member states.  Since the latter are the people who collectively set the negotiating brief, that would not be an entirely misdirected strategy – the people who set the strategy are the only ones who can change it.  Whether it will be successful or not is another question; past attempts to deal directly with individual member states have been seen as an attempt to undermine the unity of the 27, and been given short shrift as a result.
But hold on a minute – I’m sure that the Brexiteers told us that one of the reasons that we needed to leave was because member states were subservient to the ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ and couldn’t influence the direction of the EU.  That couldn’t possibly have been another porky, could it?

Friday, 22 September 2017

A day out in Florence

The UK Prime Minister is off to Florence today to give her important speech on Brexit, so important that negotiations were put on hold for a week to wait for her pearls of wisdom.  The EU negotiators have said that they will pay careful attention to what she has to say, although they’ve also said that they won’t actually be present when she gives the speech.
That declaration raised another question in my mind – who exactly will be there to listen to her?  When the speech was first mentioned, I had assumed that she had been invited by some organisation or other to go to Florence and that she had decided to use the opportunity to put forward her views on Brexit.  It seems that I was being too kind to her – it is becoming increasingly obvious that holding the event in Florence is little more than a political stunt.  Not only is the speaker being flown in for the event, but so is the audience – largely cabinet ministers and journalists.  Am I the only one who finds it a little strange that a Prime Minister should drag cabinet ministers halfway across Europe so that they can smile, nod, and clap in all the right places as she tells them publicly what she’s already told them in Cabinet?
This is the expenditure of our money by the government to organise a jolly to Florence for an event which could equally well (and far more cheaply) have been organised in London, but is going to Florence to add a sense of drama and import to the event.  Perhaps they believe that journalists whose employers will be paying their expenses for a few days in Florence – conveniently just before the weekend, should they wish to extend their stay – will be minded to provide better coverage as a result.
According to the hype, the speech will make an offer to the EU side in an attempt to move the negotiations – currently going nowhere fast – along a little.  But if that’s the aim, it’s megaphone diplomacy.  If she has an offer to make, why not make it directly to the EU negotiators at the talks which were scheduled anyway rather than delay those talks to make it publicly at an event where the claimed target audience isn’t even going to be present?  The answer is, in all probability, that the real target audience for this speech isn’t the EU27 at all – it’s for a domestic audience.  Hard reality is starting to bite; the UK needs to give ground in a number of areas, and ‘leaving’ is starting to look more and more like ‘remaining’, in the short term at least.  The drama and build-up to this event is all about trying to carry the leavers in a direction which they’re not going to like, and trying to give the impression that the UK is driving events rather than having to respond to those horrid European types.
Whether it works or not depends on the degree of cooperation by the journalists - and the gullibility of the electorate.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Brexit Masterchef

Yesterday, the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign told us that triggering Article 50 to leave the EU was an “historic, unforgivable blunder”.  Strong words, but they don’t necessarily mean that he’s completely changed his mind about leaving the EU at all (although some of his comments suggest that he’s never been entirely convinced about Brexit).  It’s more a criticism of the approach adopted, and particularly of the way that the government has plunged into the process without having a plan or knowing what it wants the end result to be.  He’s not the only one in the leave camp who has expressed such doubts.
The problem with that analysis is that the Prime Minister really does seem to believe that the government is working to an agreed plan.  In response to the latest statements by Boris Johnson, she told us yesterday that “We are all agreed as a Government about the importance of ensuring that we get the right deal for Brexit”.  It’s a statement that I can believe, but it’s wholly inadequate if they don’t have any sense of agreement about what that ‘right deal’ might look like.  It’s as though they’ve decided to bake that famous cake which everyone is always talking about, but without deciding whether it’s for eating or merely having.  Even worse, they haven’t decided what sort of cake to bake – some want a good old patriotic Victoria sponge, others want a nice sticky chocolate cake, and yet others – I blame their education – will be happy to accept a good dollop of Eton Mess.  Worse still, they’ve started to bake the cake without having agreed on the ingredients.
Still, as the Prime Minister keeps telling us in lieu of answering any question put to her, she’s perfectly clear that the people simply want her to get on with the baking, and not to get distracted by such irrelevant detail.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Merely eliminating the negative

The Secretary of State for Wales told us at the weekend that cutting just over a pound off the cost of crossing the Severn bridges will ‘power [a] new business boom with Bristol’.  It’s probably just as well that he made no attempt to explain how the one thing leads to the other, although it would be interesting to have seen him try.  It’s simply not credible that such a small change – or even the larger change which is in the pipeline when the tolls are abolished – will have as large an effect as he claims.
It’s certainly true that the tolls have, from the outset, been a disincentive to companies basing themselves in Wales.  It may not be a huge extra cost, but small costs repeated many times can become large sums, and it’s easy to see how that becomes a factor in deciding on location.  But the absence of a negative isn’t the same as the presence of a positive, as my old maths teacher would have said, and the removal of a disincentive doesn’t magically create an incentive.  The idea that a reduction in tolls – or even their abolition – can suddenly create new economic growth is fanciful at best.  During the years that the tolls have been in place, companies have already taken their decisions on location, and they aren’t suddenly going to change those because of this change; creating a more level playing field for future decisions isn’t the same as tilting it in our direction in respect of past decisions.
But when the promised land predicted by prophet Cairns fails to arrive, it will no doubt all be the fault of the Labour administration in Cardiff.  He seems to think that he’s done his bit now.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Brexit dividends

In his latest pitch for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson has returned to the ‘promise’ to spend an extra £18 billion a year (£350 million a week) on the NHS following departure from the EU.  The figure has been widely discredited many times and even most of those responsible for promoting it during the EU referendum have long since admitted that the ‘Brexit dividend’ – i.e. the amount of money available for other things because it’s no longer being sent to ‘Brussels’ would be a lot less than that.
I’d go further – I’d argue that there will be no Brexit dividend for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps there may be in the long term, if the economy really does outperform to the extent that Brexiteers believe want the rest of us to believe, although it’s beyond any reasonable or realistic forecasting window so we’ll never actually know whether we would have been better off staying in or not.  But in the short to medium term, most recognise that there will be a hit to the economy, and coupling that probable reduction in GDP, or at the least reduction in growth of GDP, with the requirement to spend a lot more on replacing all the EU agencies with UK versions, increasing the spend on managing the physical and economic borders, and the other increased costs which will come in the wake of Brexit, I believe that zero is a reasonable estimate of the Brexit dividend within any reasonable forecasting period.
Having said that, I welcome Johnson’s statement that the UK Government can spend an extra £18 billion on the NHS if it wants to.  And I agree with him; they can – it’s just that it has nothing at all to do with Brexit.  Looking at the detail of what has been said by Johnson and his supporters, that’s a truth which they come close to acknowledging themselves.  £8 billion of that total – more than 40% - has already been committed and is in no way contingent on Brexit.  What Johnson has asked for is that an extra £5 billion a year be made available in 2019 and a further £5 billion in 2022.  Given the ease with which more than £1 billion was found to buy a coalition partner, and the total government spend of more than £770 billion per annum, this isn’t much more than small change to HM Exchequer – less than 1.5% of expenditure.
However, for a moment, let’s assume that there is a relationship with Brexit.  Part of Johnson’s argument is that the UK should not honour any perceived commitments to EU budgets after the date of departure, and he wants a maximum transition period of six months.  If he’s right, then why isn’t the whole of the extra money available immediately?  Why do we need to wait until 2022?  And if he’s wrong, then where is the 2019 tranche of money coming from?  The answer to both of those questions is very simple – the initial premise is wrong, and a decision to spend more on the NHS is not contingent on Brexit; it’s a simple matter of policy.  The only reason for linking it to Brexit is to attempt to persuade us that Brexit has a short term benefit, when he knows as well as anyone else that it does not.  But then, Boris and truthfulness have been estranged for a very long time.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Tightening the bonds

I know that many independentistas in Wales and Scotland voted for Brexit.  Some argued that there was no point escaping from one union only to be swallowed up in another, although it seems to me that that view is at least partly a result of being trapped by the vagaries of language – the fact that the same word (‘union’) is used for both the UK and the EU doesn’t mean that they’re actually the same thing.  Another variant on the same theme was that membership of the EU wasn’t ‘true’ independence; it explicitly requires the surrendering of some of the independence which a country might otherwise have.  I’m not really convinced by that argument either – membership of any international or multinational body (including the UN, for example) implies a degree of sharing of sovereignty, and total independence is something of a mirage in the modern world. 
The questions to be asked are how much sovereignty we pool, in what sort of structures, and how much input we have on decision-taking.  I really don’t understand why some Welsh and Scottish independentistas insist that our two countries somehow require more independence than similar-sized member states of the EU, all of which would scoff at any suggestion that they ceased to be independent states when they joined.  The practical meaning of the word ‘independence’ changes over time, depending on the context, and in the context of European states in the twenty-first century ‘independence’ is equivalent to member-state status in the EU.
I’ve posted before that for me the question of Brexit has always been more political than economic – what is the context in which ‘independence’ for Wales is most easily and smoothly achieved?  And for me, the answer to that is clearly within the EU, where it amounts to a change in political and administrative arrangements without changing the trading relationships.  But, if that route is not available, then what?
Some in Scotland, including the former First Minister Alex Salmond, are arguing that an independent Scotland should join EFTA as a compromise.  No doubt some in Wales would make the same argument.  I can see the attractions, and if we were starting with an entirely clean sheet of paper, I’d be tempted by the possibility.  I fear, however, that from our current starting point, it would be seriously problematic for Scotland (and nigh-on impossible for Wales) in practical terms, unless England also takes the same decision.
We are already seeing, on a daily basis, how wrong the Brexiteers were in talking about a simple and swift separation of the UK from the EU.  If we assume that the UK government is ultimately going to reject the EFTA model (and all the signs are that it will, with the possible exception of a defined and short transition period) then the UK will become what is termed a ‘third country’ for EU purposes.  It’s a status which necessarily requires the creation of economic borders between the UK and the EU27.  Failure to do that leaves the UK as an open ‘back-door’ into the single market and compromises that market; something which the EU27 simply cannot afford to allow.  For Scotland and Wales to seek membership of EFTA whilst England does not would therefore, for the same reason, require the creation of economic borders between the countries of the UK.
It’s not completely impossible, of course – but we shouldn’t emulate the Brexiteers in underestimating the complexity of the task and the likely timescale for achieving it.  Moving from membership of the ‘UK single market’ to being outside that and inside the EU single market, whether through direct membership of the EU or the halfway house of EFTA, is an even bigger task than Brexit itself.  An economic union which has lasted 400 years in the case of Scotland (and closer to 600 in the case of Wales) is inevitably more closely integrated than one which has existed for only 45 years as in the case of the EU.  And there are extremely porous land borders involved as well.
Whilst all involved are still members of the EU, the pathway from being part of the UK to full EU membership as an independent state is an entirely political one.  It involves negotiations about representation and administrative arrangements, but the economic issues are minor – all the same regulations and processes apply before and after.  And whilst ‘internal enlargement’ is not something that the EU has experienced to date, ‘enlargement’, (and the inclusion of new member states) most definitely is.  It’s not an exact precedent, but it’s a sound starting point.
Many independentistas won’t want to hear this, but I can’t ignore what seems to me to be an obvious truth.  For the foreseeable future, the idea of Wales or Scotland not being part of the same trading block as England (and ‘same trading block’ includes the option of not being part of any trading block wider than the UK) is extremely problematic at a practical level.  That doesn’t mean that ‘independence’ is an impossible dream; merely that the meaning of the word changes once again.  And to a significant extent, what England decides controls that definition in a way that does not apply within the EU.  Entirely unintentionally, and for seemingly sound reasons, Brexit-supporting independentistas may have ended up contributing to a tightening, rather than a loosening, of economic ties within an increasingly isolated UK.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Escaping probation

This week has seen the twentieth anniversary of the vote to establish the Scottish Parliament, and the newspapers and television have run a number of stories around that fact.  Fair enough; nice round numbers like 10 and 20 have a resonance for us as humans, even if in mathematical, logical, and historical terms they are pretty much irrelevant.  And we can probably expect similar coverage at other equally irrelevant milestones in the future.
More interesting for me was the nature of the coverage.  Much of it revolved around what the Scottish Parliament has achieved and the sometimes implied, sometimes directly stated question about whether that list of achievements is enough to justify its establishment and continued existence.  It’s an approach which inevitably highlights the continued divisions between those who believe that such a parliament should exist and those who do not. 
But it’s an approach which is never, ever applied to the corresponding institutions in London.  The House of Lords and House of Commons emerged as separate institutions in the fourteenth century; surely a comparable assessment of what they have achieved during that time and whether their continued existence is justifiable is long overdue?  There must be a convenient round-number anniversary which can serve the purpose of raising that question – the seven-hundredth, perhaps.  Seven hundred years is surely long enough to make a proper assessment of their value and worth.  Have they achieved enough to deserve to be allowed to continue to exist?
It’s wishful thinking on my part, of course; the institutions of the UK Parliament have never felt, or been made to feel, any need to justify their existence to anyone.  It’s part of the reason that they are able to continue with arcane traditions and procedures; it’s all perceived as being the natural state of affairs despite the, shall we say, ‘eccentricities’.  But the fact that the media wouldn’t even dream of applying the same approach to Westminster as to Holyrood clearly reveals that they don’t view them in the same terms.  They don’t see Holyrood (and the same applies to the Assembly in Cardiff) as being the natural political expression of the existence of a Scottish nation and identity.  It is a subordinate body, always on probation and answerable to the real seat of power.
And in a sense, they’re entirely right.  Under the UK constitution, the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly have no legitimacy of their own; their legitimacy derives from laws passed at Westminster – laws which can be repealed at any time.  They’ll still be asking the same questions at the 30th anniversary of the vote – and every 10 years thereafter for at least the first century, but they’ll never ask them about Westminster.
There is a way of escaping permanent probation, but it depends on having the courage to seize it.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Keeping one's head in a crisis

The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU told Parliament yesterday that anyone who voted against the government bill on withdrawal was voting for a chaotic Brexit.  In the light of events so far, and in particular his own performance to date, it’s tempting to ask whether there actually is any other type of Brexit, whichever way they vote.  Chaos seems to be the order of the day, and it’s largely self-inflicted.
It looks like another attempt to blame someone else – anyone – for the failures of a government which gives every appearance of having not a clue what it wants in any degree of detail, but continues to maintain that whatever it is, the others should give it to them, because, well, UK.  There was another example of blame-apportioning a week or so ago, when William Hague argued that the government shouldn’t blame the voters even though it was really all their fault; by not giving the Tories the bigger majority which May had assumed would follow the election, they were going to end up having to pay more to leave the EU.  The mechanism by which the size of the government’s majority affects the amount of money owed to the EU was not spelled out of course (it would be interesting to see him try), but the electorate is the latest convenient scapegoat.
In the meantime, the leader of the Scottish branch of the Conservative and Unionist Party, said last week in relation to Brexit: “My real fear is that if there’s a short-term economic hit, we don’t bounce back from it”.  It’s an interesting definition of ‘short-term’ to say the least.
However, whilst her party, government, and ministers thrash around spending more time debating with each other than negotiating with the EU27, the not-at-all-robotic Prime Minister continues to talk serenely about smooth transitions, strength, and certainty.  It reminds me of someone I once worked with who, at a particularly difficult time in a large and complex project, said to the project manager, “if you can keep your head whilst all around you are losing theirs, you haven’t got a (expletive deleted) clue what’s going on”.

Monday, 11 September 2017

It's not just about economics

On Friday, the Western Mail’s leader column pronounced in large bold letters that “Brexit must not hit our country's poor”.  As a statement of what most of us would hope for, it’s hard to argue with that.  But how widely held is that view in reality?
As part of the argument in support of its position, the opinion column went on to say “Regardless of how anyone voted in the referendum, nobody will want Wales to fall off an economic cliff in 2019 when the UK leaves the EU.”  I’m far from certain that that is a true or accurate statement.  I have the impression that a quick and total break is exactly what many want and thought they were voting for.  And it was, I thought, perfectly clear during the referendum itself that many of those arguing for Brexit wanted exactly that outcome, believing, in effect, that the ultimate gain from Brexit was worth the pain involved.  That may not have been – indeed was not - what they actually said, but there was enough information to the contrary available for people to understand the likely outcome.  But – as we all do, in our own ways – people chose to believe the ‘facts’ which supported their own predispositions in a classic real-world illustration of confirmation bias.
And from reports I’ve seen on opinion surveys since the vote, including those where respondents have said that the ‘benefits’ of Brexit are so great that they’d be prepared to see relatives thrown out of work in order to realise them, I’m not sure that opinions have changed very much.  Whether I like it or not, I cannot escape the fact that the majority of those who voted in Wales supported Brexit, nor the conclusion that by doing so they voted in favour (in the short term at least) of damaging the economy of Wales, in favour of ending the regional assistance from which Wales has benefited, and in favour of making themselves and the rest of us poorer.  The reasons for doing that are varied: perhaps a belief that ‘taking back control’, or reducing immigration were valuable ends in themselves, or perhaps in the belief that short term pain would lead to long term gain.  Whatever the reasons, they voted for leaving the EU with all its consequences, and much of what the Western Mail and Wales’ politicians seem to have been saying since amounts to an attempt to remain a member for as long as possible, but call it something different.
The desire for Brexit was never primarily an economic one; those making the case always knew that there would be an economic hit as a result.  It wouldn’t fall on the leading Brexiteers, of course; it was always going to be the poorer families, nations, and regions which would suffer.  In the same way, my own wish to remain was never primarily an economic one either; it was about Wales’ place in the world and how best to get there.  There are economic consequences, of course; there will be winners and losers, but over the long term, the economy will adapt – it’s what economies do.  Whether it will recover to the extent that it makes no difference over the very long term is an open question to which we can never really know the answer, since we only get to live through events once.  It’s a wholly unnecessary and self-inflicted pain in the interim but sadly it’s what people voted for, no matter how much the Western Mail and others may try to argue otherwise.
The real problem that I have with all the arguments about mitigating the effect and seeking a way through the mess which causes as little damage as possible is that they’re not tackling the underlying problem, and may be in danger of confirming rather than challenging the views of those who supported Brexit.  What was lacking at the time of the referendum – and is still lacking from our nation’s ‘leaders’ – was any attempt to make a positive argument for the European integration which brought the trade and economic benefits rather than a simplistic negative argument against losing those benefits.  Those who built the EU’s structures – just like those who argued for Brexit – never did so for primarily economic reasons.  It was always about a vision for the future of Europe.  There are flaws in the way that they have attempted to realise that vision, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they had one.
Underlying the whole debate about Brexit and its consequences is a major gulf between differing views about what sort of Europe we want to see and what our role in it should be, whether as Wales or as the UK.  Treating it as solely an economic issue and concentrating the debate on mitigating the economic effects is ignoring that clash of world views.  It does no more to change the world view of those supporting Brexit than repeatedly telling them that they were duped and misled (even if that happens to be true).  But it is on the underlying conceptions of the world and the role of Wales and the UK in it that the debate needs to be centred if there is to be any chance of a change of attitude.  Changing course for solely economic reasons will only reinforce the belief that we are somehow being ‘dominated and bullied’ by ‘Brussels’ into doing what 'they' want.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The people will decide

I can’t remember the exact date, but sometime in the late 1970s I once met the founder of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, Jordi Pujol, who later became the leader of the Generalitat in Catalunya.  It was not long after the death of Franco, and it was still illegal for anyone even to advocate the idea of independence from the Spanish state.  That, he told me, was the reason that Convergència at that time argued for more autonomy, rather than for independence.  However, others always saw him, until the latter part of his period in government at least when he gave up on the idea of progress within the Spanish state, as more of a natural federalist than an independentista.  So, whether his commitment at that time, and for many years thereafter, to building a federal Spain was down to principle or pragmatism may well be open to debate, but it has become largely irrelevant in the context of the twenty-first century.  Things in Catalunya have moved on (in large part because of the actions of the Spanish central authorities in amending the statute of autonomy in 2010) and independence, rather than federalism, is now the mainstream of debate.
As Syniadau posted yesterday, the Catalan Parliament – in which an overall majority of the members were elected on a platform calling for independence – voted on Wednesday to proceed to hold a referendum on 1st October.  The central authorities in Madrid have been quick to denounce this as an illegal act and have promised to prevent it happening.  Whether they will succeed or not is an open question – Syniadau argues cogently that they are unlikely to be able to prevent it taking place, and that the likeliest outcome, as things stand, is a declaration of independence within days after the votes are counted.
Strictly speaking, there is no doubt that the central authorities are correct in arguing that the move is contrary to Spanish law.  The Spanish constitution makes it clear that Spain is a single and indivisible whole and that no part has the right to secede.  Things have improved since that meeting with Jordi all those years ago, in the sense that it’s no longer illegal to advocate independence, but the only legal way to achieve it involves first persuading the rest of Spain to approve a change to the constitution.  It’s an impossible barrier – but that was always the intention.  That leaves a political movement which has won the argument in Catalunya itself, and has an electoral mandate to move forwards, with little choice.
I’ve argued in the past that I can devise no satisfactory objective definition of nationality.  Nationality is in essence both subjective and fluid; it changes over time.  And sometimes people can feel that they are members of two or more overlapping nations at the same time.  Some independentistas deny that – despite it being the everyday reality of most of the people around us – and demand that everyone choose one, and only one nationality.  That seems to me to be a futile and self-defeating quest.  But there is another point to this as well – whether defined objectively or not, is nationality the only basis for deciding whether the people living in a defined geographical area have the right to govern themselves or not?  I don’t see why it should be, and in the context of Catalunya, it doesn’t matter whether the people see themselves as Catalans, Spaniards, or a bit of both – if they decide on self-determination, who has the right to stop them?
It’s an issue which goes to the heart of what ‘sovereignty’ is and where it resides.  For those of us who believe that it belongs to all of us, the right to self-determination is one which cannot be denied once the majority desire it.  The Spanish authorities start from the perspective that ‘the law is the law’, and as a result, no part of the whole has any rights unless the rest of the whole agrees to them.  It’s an unbridgeable gulf in perceptions, which is why all attempts at negotiating some other way forward have failed.  It doesn’t look like it will be an easy ride, but the decision is now going to be taken where it should be taken: by the people of Catalunya themselves.